Context is content

Nico Flores, a blogging friend from the BBC, writes a provocative post about content:

Content is nothing on its own. It only exists as part of conversations — understood not in the usual ‘blogsphere’ sense of deliberation, but as shared concerns (not my term), concerns that we must partake in to be part of communities. When I buy a novel I choose it not just because I think I might enjoy it, but also because it is also being read by other people, because it’s part of a larger movement that I’m interested in, or because it is relevant to something else I read. Reading is satisfactory only if I bring with me a certain baggage; and reading will add to my baggage, allowing me to appreciate other works and, crucially, to have more of a shared background with people around me. My point is that content–or, more precisely, the transaction of consuming content–is only meaningful as part of a wider conversation that is made up of countless related transactions.

He goes on to write about the role of discovery in content itself.

When Clay Shirky and I first saw AOL’s blogging tools and they fretted about the junk that may be created, we told them that “it’s not content until it’s linked.” That’s a glib line, but it’s in sync with Nico’s point about the larger definition of content.

Content does not exist without context. In the past, that simply meant we needed to know more about the creator or the time: The Diary of Anne Frank is about its context.

Part of what I’m trying to argue in my speculations about the fate of books is that context both defines and enriches content. Without that context, the content is poorer. The ability to link to and from content and its antecedents and successors in a chain of criticism, contribution, questioning, correction, argument, and remixing becomes part of the content itself. The timing of content matters, of course. What content does not say says a lot about it, as well. Who creates or consumes content also defines that content; chick lit is chick lit because it is written and read by chicks. And thanks to the ability of digital media to capture our content actions, the act of consumption is now an act of creation; our iPod playlists, our Amazon breadcrumbs, our Google clicks, our Flickr links, and our RSS aggregations are all collections of interaction with content that become content themselves.

But cutting off content from such conversation, in Nico’s broader use of the term — by imprisoning writing only in books or story-telling only on a disc or journalism behind a wall — we rob that content of content.